Friday morning former Canadian marathon record-holder Silvia Ruegger died of cancer at age 58. Ruegger held the marathon record of 2:28:36 for 28 years before it was broken by Lanni Marchant in 2:28:00 in 2013.
Ruegger was a very fast runner, but the mark she left on the running world was so much more than her times. She participated in the first Olympic women’s marathon, where she finished eighth. Marchant and Krista DuChene are two Canadian marathoners who both ran under her record in 2013 at the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon, with Marchant just edging out DuChene, who finished in 2:28:32. Both women looked up to Ruegger and credit her with setting an important benchmark for running in Canada.
Ruegger set the former Canadian record of 2:28:36 at the Houston Marathon in 1985. That mark was supposed to be the beginning of her career, a stepping stone to a faster time, but a car accident several months later changed everything. On a February evening Ruegger was in a collision that sent her through the front windshield of her car. She had landed 60 metres from the vehicle.
For the next several seasons, Ruegger tried to return to her record-setting form. She dealt with an onslaught of injuries, many triggered by the damage done to her legs in the accident. Although she was able to run another 2:30 marathon, she was unable to break that Canadian record that she saw as just a stepping stone for where her career was supposed to go.
Marchant says that Ruegger was someone she admired, but explains that the root of her admiration has changed through the years. “She began as someone whose record I was chasing, someone who had set the bar in Canadian women’s distance running. Since my series of injuries and illness in the past three years, she’s now someone who I admire for never giving up.”
Ruegger didn’t officially retire from professional running until many years later. It’s her persistence that Marchant admires most now. Marchant points out that even when Ruegger couldn’t return to professional running in the capacity she had initially planned, she shifted her energy, becoming an integral member of the Start2Finish program. “When she couldn’t get her body to do what she wanted it to, she put her energy into helping others achieve their own goals.” Start2Finish is a group whose work combines physical activity and academics to help kids. Ruegger founded the first Running and Reading Club. Participants spend the first half of the session running and playing dynamic games and then sit down for an hour of reading.
Marchant and DuChene inherited the position of marathon leaders after that record-setting race in Toronto in 2013. Both women dipped under Ruegger’s mark, and Marchant said the former record-holder couldn’t have been happier. “I remember sitting beside her and being in awe of her [at a 2012 press conference]. She was so excited about the possibility of her record going down, there wasn’t any ego there at all. She knew that it was time for that record to go.”
DuChene said that Ruegger saw her accolades as a platform from which she could give back, as opposed to her end goal. “Many have been inspired by Silvia for her Canadian marathon record of 28 years, and her 8th place finish in 1984 in Los Angeles, which was the first women’s marathon at the Olympic Games. Silvia would say that her accolades created a platform, which she could use to serve others. She gave back. She put others first. It wasn’t all about her. And that is why I admired her most.”
DuChene continued, “In 2013 I wanted to break her record but did so after Lanni. It was on the way to the awards ceremony that Silvia comforted me with the words, ‘It takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well.’ I asked her to repeat it, because I knew it would be a defining moment in my life. Cancer is a terrible disease that I lost both parents to when they were around the same age as Silvia. Far too soon. Silvia, thank you for inspiring Canadians. Thank you for refining me. Thank you for fighting with an unwavering faith. Thank you for your incredible grace and dignity. You have finished your race and now receive the ultimate prize.”
Ruegger was a longtime Brooks athlete. Jim Weber, the company’s CEO, also expressed admiration for her strong character. “We are heartbroken at the passing of Silvia Ruegger. Silvia lived a life of inspiration and impact, especially with kids. Her achievements inspired millions of young runners, and most especially girls, as the sport entered a decades-long participation boom. We remember and celebrate her seemingly infinite energy, passion and heart as she championed the power of running and sport to improve lives. At Brooks, we will all miss her and our condolences go out to her family and friends.”
The marathon record has been lowered further since Marchant and DuChene broke it in 2013. Rachel Cliff now owns the title of Canadian marathon record-holder at 2:26:56. Canadian distance running, especially on the women’s side, has had an incredible year. Between the track and the roads, a shocking 12 records have fallen on the women’s side. None of this happens without strong influences that prove to the younger generation of runners that they are capable of more than they think. Examples are made to follow and records are made to be broken–and by all accounts Silvia Ruegger was someone who set an example that will remain the gold standard for a very long time.